In South Africa, female ministers have a message: It’s time for equality

Growing up, Purity Malinga’s faith taught her that God was perfect.

But the people who believed in Him, she soon realized, were not.

This, after all, was apartheid South Africa, and no matter how equally God saw her, she was still a Black woman in a world where both her race and her gender were strikes against her.

So when she took the pulpit last September as the first woman elected to lead the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, she addressed members bluntly.

“The humanity of women is diminished every day in our society and in churches,” the presiding bishop-elect said. “If indeed we believe as church we are called to proclaim the gospel that heals and transforms, it is time to act.”

Over the last three centuries, churches have played a complicated role in South African history, as they have nearly everywhere in the world. At times, they have been the engines of colonialism and segregation, giving a biblical mandate to human bigotry. But they have also been the instruments of its undoing. The Methodist Church, for instance, was banned in part of the country in the 1970s for its opposition to apartheid. It counted among its members some of the most forceful voices for racial equality, including Nelson Mandela.

But in recent years, the Methodist Church here has faced a new reckoning, as its female leadership tries to break the stained-glass ceiling – a struggle mirrored in many other faiths. Like many religious institutions in South Africa after apartheid, the church has struggled to reconcile its lofty ideals around justice and equality with its treatment of women.

Now, a generation of women leaders in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) is making a forceful argument. The church must be the change it wants to see in the world.

“Religion has to be a moving vehicle for social change,” says the Rev. Mantima Thekiso, a young Black minister in Johannesburg. “Otherwise, it loses its relevance.”

Theory vs. practice

For Bishop Malinga, the church’s inner battle was part of its identity for as long as she could remember. As a child growing up in a rural community, she says, her all-Black Methodist congregation was mostly made up of women, and she never second-guessed the idea that they were its natural leaders. Outside those walls, however, MCSA wrestled with whether to ordain women, allowing it only in 1976.

In church, she was told that Methodists believed all people were equal. In 1958, the church had become one of the first denominations to forcefully reject apartheid countrywide, promising it would never segregate its churches, because they were “one and undivided” by race. But as a young seminarian, “I came to realize there were still white churches and Black churches, and that in the white churches, I was made to know I was an outsider,” she says. “I’ve always managed that contradiction by trying to differentiate between human frailty and the perfection of God.”

But godly ideals and human failings frequently crashed head-on in apartheid South Africa. In her early days as a minister in the 1980s, Ms. Malinga says, male colleagues – Black and white – told her outright that she shouldn’t be there. They quoted biblical verses saying that women should be seen and not heard. In ministry, they assigned her to “women’s tasks” like teaching children.

“It was only when I went to study [for my master’s] at Harvard that I was exposed to a feminist theology,” she says. “It made me realize – it’s not me who is crazy, it is the church that’s crazy.”

And being at Harvard also taught her something else – that racism was not a uniquely South African affliction.

“After growing up under apartheid, I was so excited to experience what it was like to be in a democratic country where I would be seen as a full human being,” she says. But if Boston’s racism was more subtle than South Africa’s, it was no less stinging. “You feel it in the way people talk to you, in the condescending way things are explained to you – that you’re not wanted here.”

When she returned home in 1992, however, the South Africa she had known before was giving way to something new. Two years earlier, Mr. Mandela had been released from prison after 27 years, and the country was preparing for his first democratic election. The Methodist Church, too, was trying to find its footing.

Schalk van Zuydam/AP/File
People sing after praying for former South African President Nelson Mandela, inside the Methodist church that he attended as a child, in Mqhekezweni, South Africa, Dec. 11, 2013.

The church had begun trying to integrate its churches – sending Black ministers to largely white congregations, and white ministers to Black ones. But for women, little changed.

In 1999, Ms. Malinga was appointed bishop for a region along South Africa’s east coast. But as the church’s only female bishop, she says she struggled to make her voice heard. “It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish for any woman,” she says. “The men I worked with felt sorry for me. They didn’t take me as their equal. There was no expectation that I would be listened to and respected like any other leader in the church.” She left the post in 2008.

“As a woman minister, you sometimes feel like a token,” says Ms. Thekiso. “You’re the example of what female excellence looks like.  But if you fail, women as a whole fail too.”

Sudden momentum

By 2016, only 17% of Methodist ministers were women, and they made up just 4% of the regional leaders. But a vocal campaign was underway to elect more female leaders, led by a group within the church called Women in Ministry. “I challenge the [Methodist Church of Southern Africa] to be true to its words,” urged the Rev. Libuseng Lebaka-Ketshabile, another Black female minister, at the church’s annual conference in 2016. “How long shall the church renege on its responsibility of affirming women?”

Momentum might have kept building quietly, were it not for a sudden scandal that thrust the issue into the public eye. In January 2019, the Rev. Vukile Mehana, an influential leader with close ties to the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress, was caught on tape dismissing the idea that a man could ever be ordained by a female minister.

“I do not care whether you call that patriarchy or whatever rubbish you want to call it, but … this should not be allowed in the church,” he said.

The uproar – in and outside the church – was massive.

“There was absolute horror within the church. We had to contend with the fact that this is us,” says Dion Forster, a Methodist minister and theologian at Stellenbosch University. “This is one of our most prominent members, who is socially progressive, politically progressive, and this is how he speaks about his female colleagues.”

The reaction was swift. Later last year, MCSA elected Ms. Malinga to be its presiding bishop – the church’s highest office – and appointed three other women as regional bishops.

For Ms. Malinga and other women, it was a step in the right direction, and a big one at that. But it was far from all that was needed. So when she prepared her first speech as presiding bishop-elect, Ms. Malinga decided she wouldn’t let anyone off the hook.

“I wanted to talk about the things that are a disgrace to this church – how we preach change and talk about transformation in society, when in truth transformation is taking a long time in the church itself,” she says. “This was my time to call for the Methodist Church to be true to itself.”




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